March 8, 2013 7:05 pm

Ireland’s diaspora return

The country’s vast diaspora has been invited home as part of a year-long ‘gathering’. But what will they find there?
Eimear O’Donovan sings at the convention©Mary Furlong

Eimear O’Donovan sings at the convention

Too long a sacrifice

can make a stone of the heart

O when may it suffice?

WB Yeats, ‘Easter, 1916’

On a January night in 1963, a US naval ship docked near Dublin. A gang of sailors sloped into town in pursuit of women and souvenirs. Tollie Lee, six weeks in service and three months shy of 21 years old, remained on deck. It was so cold that he swore he could hear his bones rattle. The ship was set to leave for Portsmouth in the morning. There would be other visits soon, he told himself. Ireland could wait. Lee descended to his cabin for warmth and prayer.

“Boy did I regret that,” he tells me, 50 years later. Last week Lee travelled from his hometown of Hoboken, Georgia, to Cork for the Third Ireland Sacred Harp Convention. Mostly, he is here for the music. Beneath the beams of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral Hall, a hundred singers take it in turns to lead the choral laments of the Sacred Harp hymn book, from which the event takes its name.

But Lee is, finally, enjoying his first steps on Irish soil. His jowl wobbles as he struts out the time of his threnody “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”. “You people are awesome!” he proclaims after the reverberations wane. He believes he is one of them. It is a sense of belonging that he has nurtured through song – one that he longs to explore. “They say all the rich Lees came from England but all the poor ones came from Ireland. That sounds about right,” he says self­deprecatingly. He will soon find out. After the convention is over, Lee plans to spend the day at Cork’s Central Library to look up his Irish ancestry.

Ireland’s government, meanwhile, is on the lookout for more people like Lee. At Dublin airport, posters of beaming Irish folk greet visitors. “Excited to get you home,” reads one slogan. This is Gathering Ireland, a year-long tourism campaign targeted at the Irish diaspora. There are 70m people of Irish heritage living abroad, according to Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland – and Ireland wants them “home”.

Last year, 7.3m tourists came to the Emerald Isle. In 2013, Gathering aims to attract an additional 350,000. The tourist board is not organising events. Instead, anyone can host a “gathering”. Over 3,000 shindigs are planned, from St Patrick’s Day parties, to family reunions, to celebrations of redheads and left-handed people, and a party where everyone named Clare is invited to County Clare.

Ireland has a recent history of looking to its diaspora. Mary Robinson, who was president between 1990 and 1997, placed a light by a window at her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, to beckon emigrants home. Few, therefore, would have expected the Gathering to lead to much controversy.

Enter Gabriel Byrne. Last November, the 62-year-old actor, who has lived in the US since 1987, criticised the Gathering. Byrne told Today FM radio that the diaspora is only brought up when politicians ask, “How can we get these people here to boost our tourism and how can we get people back here so that we can shake them down for a few quid?” The subsequent fuss proved a PR boost for Tourism Ireland. But it also suggested that Byrne had touched a nerve, as well as the Blarney Stone.

. . .

Exile is a core theme in Ireland’s history. Perhaps only Israel has a more intense relationship with its diaspora. Over the centuries, many Irish left out of choice. But many did not. During the economically buoyant early years of the 21st century, however, it seemed like this part of the national story was over. Emigrants were returning. Young Irish still left to make the world a better place, as they always have done, but they no longer had to. Indeed, Ireland became a prime destination for immigrants.

Sign©Mary Furlong

Pointing the way to an event at the Sacred Harp Convention in Cork

But in 2008 the “Celtic Tiger” era ended with an almighty crash. Now, emigration is increasing again. The economy is still struggling. Austerity is biting. Inadvertently, Gathering Ireland has raised questions. What, and who, will the diaspora find at “home”? And what does “home” mean anyway?

“It’s not just the economy they’re getting away from. It’s all the ne-ga-tiv-i-ty.” I’ve been in Dublin for five hours and four pints and the humour in Mulligan’s is Guinness-black. At the patron side of the bar, Fran Keane draws out the syllables of “negativity”. The 53-year-old bus driver saw his son leave for Melbourne last year to find work and to escape his friends’ fatalism. Keane misses him.

Des O’Brien, another patron, agrees. “It’s not getting better,” he says. “For some,” he continues, slurping a stout, “it is a case of drinking three nights a week instead of five”. Yet he believes Ireland “hasn’t hit rock bottom ... If the Gathering can help to start the climb, then all for the best. But I haven’t asked anyone back for it.”

One should not confuse lugubrious pub chat for economic analysis. After all, Irish living standards have returned to 2002, not 1902, levels. However, travelling around the country, it is hard to escape the feeling that I have gatecrashed a national wake. In one corner, there is sadness, anger and fear. In another, there is talk that the worst is not yet over. There is also a sense of the comic absurdity of the past few years; a pervasive you-have-to-laugh-or-you’d-cry attitude.

“We are a humbled country,” Olivia O’Leary tells me in Dublin. The 63-year-old doyenne of Irish journalism and former BBC Newsnight presenter, adds that in the boom years, “we thought we were too posh for tourism”. O’Leary supports the Gathering, although its marketing has so far had only limited penetration. “Has it started yet?” she asks.

Greyhounds at a ‘Gathering’ in Killarney©Mary Furlong

Greyhounds at a ‘Gathering’ in Killarney

The campaign has had to compete with lots of bad news. Although Ireland returned to the capital markets last summer and in February exchanged the so-called promissory notes it issued at the height of the crisis for long-term debt, its ratio of debt to gross domestic product is about 120 per cent. Output remains 7-11 per cent smaller than it was in 2007, depending on how it is measured. Unemployment is dropping slowly but remains high, at 14 per cent.

As I leave Dublin and drive west, radio bulletins are replete with tales of austerity. Giddy auctioneers boast of record volumes at a distressed property sale. Civil servants protest against pay cuts. The health minister is trapped in a lift. The only other prominent story is the Beckettian tale of a man in Florida who died after a sinkhole 20 feet wide opened up beneath him. Somehow it seems eerily apt.

. . .

It is the opening night of the Book Club Festival in Ennis, a gem of a town in County Clare. The main event is a meeting of 10 book clubs to discuss Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor’s 2003 novel set during the Irish famine. The author is present. Eighty women and six beleaguered husbands consider the first discussion question about the role of emigration in the book. One woman shares her story: “When I read Star of the Sea, I read it as a historical novel. But it’s not. Now, I have a daughter and she’s moved to Boston. And she’s not coming back.”

Like many Gathering events, the Ennis festival seems as much about bringing a community together as bringing the diaspora home. Ireland’s economic collapse continues to have profound social effects. Gathering organisers speak openly of the need to lift spirits. The legacy of the event may end up greatest at a local level, through rebuilt social capital – rather than through shaken-down foreigners.

The six ladies who founded the book club that gave rise to the festival are all in favour of the Gathering. Amid the itinerant interruptions for gossip and greetings for Bridget Ginnity, who is home from Helsinki, I ask why.

“It will help people realise that we have beautiful things,” says Ciana Campbell, a 54-year-old communications consultant, who was initially sceptical about the Gathering. “Like in France, with those little village festivals with the cherries out and the bottles of wine.” Cathy McDermott, a 51-year-old accountant, agrees: “I think people do need it. I mean, we were always good for a party anyway. But I think people need it. I really do.” Mary Donnelly, 52, is hosting another Gathering event in May where the public health nurse will welcome all those who share her surname.

The joy of getting together – of gathering – may have been overlooked in Ireland’s recent past, suggests O’Leary. Gathering Ireland has certainly tapped in to the country’s tradition of meeting and storytelling. Few would deny Ireland’s affinity (and faculty) for talk. Perhaps its legendary craic has therapeutic qualities.

Booker prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville tells me at the book festival how a humbleness was lost in the boom. His wife and he played a dinner party game where they would describe the features of the archetypal Celtic Tiger. “The person we came up with was a 50-year-old woman, with a 15-year-old in the back of her black SUV, driving at 60mph in a bus lane, smoking and giving you the finger.” It’s a game they no longer play.

. . .

The next day, in Cork, Tollie Lee and fellow Americans are enjoying the hospitality and the music at the Sacred Harp Convention. David Ivey, 57, from Madison, Alabama, inherited his love of the singing from his father and grandfather. Also passed down was an amorphous sense of Irish identity, unproven but deeply felt. He says his family tell a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Irish ancestors who lived on a hill. Ivey’s grandfather went to live on a raised plateau in later life, a decision that he ascribes to the power of belonging. “I can’t get him off of that mountain if I tried,” Ivey says. I ask about the Gathering. Ivey is an enthusiastic supporter but adds: “What’s sad is that all the younger Irish people are leaving. I know they don’t want to leave their home, but they have to.”

. . .

Later I head west from Ireland’s second-biggest city to Killarney in county Kerry. Here, emigration is hurting where it matters most – sport. I arrive at the Gathering event in Lahard to find an ad hoc greyhound track in the middle of a damp field. “Please make your surplus bitches known to registration,” says an endearingly incomprehensible accent over the public address system. Pairs of dogs whizz past under columns of sunlight perforating the mist.

The race, attended by about 200 people, is in aid of a local cancer charity and the community’s sports teams. Gary Moloney, an Eircom engineer who has enough work for only five months of the year, tells me how departing players have left Gaelic football and soccer teams bereft. His youngest son is only 15 but plays in the local under-18 soccer team, which his middle son left to go and find work in Australia. Three Gaelic football teams in a nearby village have merged. “It’s not getting better,” Moloney says of the local economy. “Not a week goes by without two suicides in this county, including a number in this village.”

Building a shelter for greyhounds in Killarney©Mary Furlong

Building a shelter for greyhounds in Killarney

On average, 127 Irish people emigrated each day in the year to April 2012 – “levels not experienced since the famine”, according to the Irish Independent newspaper. A total of 46,500 Irish citizens left, an increase of 16 per cent on the previous 12 months. In addition, 40,600 foreign nationals also left, the third annual increase in a row. More than one-third of emigrants were aged 15-24 years.

The return of emigration as an issue also gets to the heart of Ireland’s perception of itself – at least as marketed by the Gathering. As Roy Foster, a celebrated Irish historian based at the University of Oxford, says, “[The Gathering] does tie into the whole emigration thing, which is so much part of the Irish experience and about which the Irish people feel so ambivalent.

“You know, on the one hand the Irish emigrate very well. But on the other hand, there’s always been a nationalist analysis that sees emigrants as somehow letting down the country.” This was tied up in Irish resistance to British rule, he says. “In the extreme nationalist period of the early 20th century, they used to be called ‘traitors’.”

The nature of home also set the stage for the debate between WB Yeats and James Joyce. The poet believed that liberty for Ireland would come from an embrace of its national culture. The novelist rejected this route. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus announces that he is “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”. Joyce’s work was a lifelong effort to find a new language for Irishness, through symbols, syntax and modernism.

Dan Brittain©Mary Furlong

Dan Brittain from Arkansas at the Cork convention

A decade ago, these debates were old hat. The country had moved far and fast. Annual gross income growth was in double digits for much of the 1990s. Immigration made the country diverse – Dublin especially so. For Poles, Ireland was a perfect mix of labour-hungry, Catholic and relatively liberal. At the music festival in Cork, 35-year-old Magdalena Gryszko from Warsaw, sings to me the schoolyard ditty her friends used to tease boys – “I love you like I love Ireland.”

But the velocity and distance of the economic crash may have left a cultural impact. Two of the biggest openings of Dublin’s theatre season are the musical version of the film Once, a tale of Irish-Czech romance, and a revival of Declan Hughes’ 1991 play Digging for Fire. The latter marked the coming of the Celtic Tiger period, Foster says. Its return marks a rethinking of the legacy of the boom.

Gabriel Byrne’s comments suggest more than just the concerns of an Irishman in America being asked to dip into his capacious pockets. In recent comments reported by the Irish press, he seems to recognise that the government needs to be sensitive about how it presents Ireland. Shamrocks and scenery don’t do justice to the levels of national soul-searching. “If you’re going to have a relationship with the diaspora, you have to nurture it,” Byrne says. “You have to take care of it, you have to tend it, you have to pay attention to it.”

Ultimately, the numbers through the arrival terminals will determine the success of the Gathering. If it can persuade people with feelings of belonging to Ireland to come visit and spend money, it will have done its job as a tourist drive. But the reaction to it, amid a new wave of emigration and introspection, suggests that Byrne (and Joyce) was right. It is not the diaspora that is the solution to Ireland’s problems. Revival once again must come from within.

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John McDermott is the FT’s executive comment editor

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